Fans of SFF works have a bad reputation for being nit-picky, especially when it comes to the details of world-building. Strong world-building, however, is a big part of why readers are drawn to science fiction and fantasy. If we were interested in the real world, we’d be reading literary fiction of non-fiction. SFF worlds are fantastical and intriguing in ways the real world could never be.
Is the criticism of exacting fans warranted? For my part, I’m far more likely to forgive the odd detail of the fantastical setting than I am an inconsistency in the way the magic system works. If you have a character able to do something one minute, they should be able to do it the next. Of course, there must be limitations and/or a cost associated with power – Kryptonite for Superman or even energy levels for humans (!) – but on the whole, the abilities within that world shouldn’t change from moment to moment. Readers aren’t being hypercritical and difficult to please, but a simple demand from all who enjoy a good story: there needs to be an internal logic throughout.
Consistency = success, but there are always exceptions to any rule
I recently watched a series of lectures given by Brandon Sanderson on fantasy writing (all budding fantasy writers should watch it, it is available on YouTube here, though it isn’t necessary to watch the first episode) where Sanderson discusses one exception to the rule with JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Each book in the series introduces a new magic that is then mostly forgotten during subsequent books. The Time Turner is a prime example – why doesn’t everyone have one? Why not just turn back time after someone is killed and make sure they avoid the death blow next time round? Why wouldn’t everyone fighting Voldemort just take the potion for luck every single day? The strength of all the different magic abilities also varies wildly – for instance, we know that there are powerful spells that can be used in this world, so why didn’t the teachers at Hogwarts use more powerful magic to guard the Sorcerer’s Stone? Once I started picking away at the premises Rowling explored, I found nothing but holes.
Rowling’s problems don’t stop there. The Harry Potter stories are offenders of many terrible fantasy tropes. While usually avoiding Deus ex Machina (they are usually foreshadowed in the particular book), other tropes are not so deftly avoided. With each new book, Rowling ups the stakes for Harry and his friends. With the increase in threat comes a need for newer and more powerful defenses. As such, Rowling often ends up using two tropes every fantasy reader could go without seeing: New Powers as the Plot Demands and It Only Works Once. The most frustrating aspect of this trend is that every time Harry overcomes an obstacle, it is often because ‘everything was just right’… he happened to be in the right place at the right time, learned just the right spell in class the other week, or just because his wand happened to be made from the same Phoenix Voldemort’s was! It is always a little too convenient when it works, and when it doesn’t, the readers want to shout at the characters for not using magic we’ve already seen them use!
Rowling is hardly alone when it comes to creating inconsistency in the abilities of her characters. The most recent Marvel and Netflix series, Jessica Jones, suffers from this as well. She is established early as someone with extraordinary strength and yet, occasion, she still manages to be overpowered by ordinary humans. Along with her super strength comes her ability to jump – but we are never presented with any limitations to either. Does that mean there aren’t any? (A similar issue occurs with Luke Cage’s abilities, but to discuss it would include spoilers so I’ll skip that one.) It might be a cliché, but at least The Flash broached the subject by having Barry practice at his powers to discover his limitations as well as push himself to do better. That kind of blatant exposition and info-dumping isn’t necessary, but some set-up for what powers can and can’t do is important; and once the rules have been established, writers need to stick to them.
Everything comes at a price
Both examples of Harry Potter and Jessica Jones miss out an important aspect that I have come to love and respect in well written SFF: cost. Nothing in this, or any other world, is free. Even magic. Jessica is very strong, but does this strength require more fuel than an average person? She drinks an awful lot, maybe she is like Bender from Futurama and creates energy from alcohol. While The Flash might be a very silly series and have plenty of problems of its own, it at least tackled this issue by having Cisco develop a high protein supplement for Barry to eat, as his super speed ploughs through his body’s energy resources at an alarming rate. With Harry Potter there doesn’t seem to be any limit to anyone’s power, only knowledge of the spells and potentially cooking skills (that’s what potions class is, right? Home economics?).
It isn’t particularly interesting for characters to have unlimited access to power. If so, they would smash through any obstacle with their abilities without consequences. Most often in fantasy, writers have the use of magic abilities lead to exhaustion, but there are so many ways in which you can develop an interesting cost limitation on power. Sanderson is a master of this and includes it in his ‘Sanderson’s Laws’ (covered in Sanderson’s Second Law). In his Mistborn series, every power requires a metal to be ingested and ‘burned’ by the magic wielder, while in The Stormlight Archive, magic is derived from energy provided by storms. These limitations and costs of using magic means that characters potentially can be caught without use of their abilities as well as a need to acquire certain things. A character who needs something is always going to be more interesting.
While some writers can succeed without keeping these golden rules in mind, for any budding SFF writers out there, remember that these are good rules to follow.